The Saskatchewan NDP has been asking a lot of questions, and not getting a lot of answers, about expenses on hotel and motel rooms by the Ministry of Social Services since October of 2020. The questions all center around the expenses at two motels that are connected with Saskatchewan Party MLA Gary Grewal in Regina.  

Meara Conway is the NDP MLA for Regina-Elphinstone Centre and is the opposition critic for government ethics and democracy. She said the concern began back in November when a senior had gone to a hotel owned by Grewal and was charged the market rate. The NDP did some advocacy for her with Social Services, and they stepped in to pay the bill. 

The amount charged to the Ministry of Social Services was almost double what was charged to the senior herself. This resulted in the NDP looking further into the situation, and asking more questions about the Sunrise Motel.  

“We learned that prior to the 2020 election, when Mr. Grewal was elected, that Social Services did almost no business with the Sunrise Motel,” Conway explained. In the two years prior to the 2020 election, the total amount spent was $1,309. After the election, the number grew astronomically, with a total of $381,333 spent at the Sunrise Motel from 2020 until September of last year, the last month data was made available.  

“Then we learned that there was a second motel connected with Mr. Grewal,” Conway added. “He’s an investor in the Thriftlodge Motel, which is one of the other top utilized hotels by the Ministry of Social Services. We started to ask some questions about that. We finally got answers on that this week, and we learned that the Ministry of Social Services was doing no business with the Thriftlodge Motel before Mr. Grewal was elected, and then after, there was just kind of an explosion to the Thriftlodge Motel.” 

The data provided by the NDP showed the Ministry of Social Services spent a total of $349,861 from the start of the 2021-22 fiscal year through to September of last year.  

The rates charged to the Ministry of Social Services also raised some eyebrows in the NDP caucus, with Thriftlodge charging the highest rate above their regular rate to the Ministry of Social Services, and Sunrise charging a premium as well.  

Conway did point out that there are some premium rates charged by various hotels, but they are quite reduced compared to the Thriftlodge and the Sunrise.  

“The Parktown Hotel in Saskatoon, their market rate is $188 per night and they charge social services, on average, $144 per night. If you look at the Refresh Inn and Suites in Saskatoon, the average paid to the ministry is $149 per night, and their market rate when we looked into this was $143 per night,” Conway clarified, noting the Thriftlodge and Sunrise were outliers.  

While the NDP has been looking for answers to the questions, Conway said no matter what those answers are, even if everything is above board and being handled through the proper channels, the optics aren’t very good. 

“This is not acceptable,” Conway stated. “We expect that public officials are not using their position in order to benefit their private businesses.” 

In terms of who makes the decisions of what hotels are on the approved list for the Ministry of Social Services to use, and who drafted the list, the NDP has been trying to get that information. 

“The minister (of Social Services) is saying he has nothing to do with this, but we know that there are approved lists of hotels,” Conway added. “We know that we’ve asked for disclosure of that list. We haven’t gotten it, and it sounds like two of these hotels, connected to a Sask Party MLA, are on those approved lists.” 

As the opposition critic for government ethics and democracy, Conway said elected government MLAs are held to a high standard. 

“Even if this isn’t against the legislation, and we are concerned that it may be, the fact that this was happening on the Sask Party’s watch is unacceptable,” Conway said. “We’re held to a higher standard as we should be. This doesn’t pass the smell test, and we’re very concerned.” 

The issue isn’t just for the public’s opinion of the Saskatchewan Party government either, Conway added. She pointed out that when there is any perception of something happening that is unethical or is a conflict of interest by an elected official, it can erode the public’s trust in the government as a whole.  

“A lot of rules and legislation that are in place are to protect against even inclinations, or a perception, that there’s something corrupt or unethical going on, and so we as elected officials have to be cognizant of that, have to pay attention to that, have to guard against that, and this is simply a massive failure, even from that perspective.” 

The NDP will be looking to potentially forward the situation to the province’s conflict of interest commissioner. Conway noted there are a few steps that can be taken, depending on the findings. There could be censure, and recommendations around changes to the legislation, and then the public would also have their say during the election.  

She added the issue is something that is part of a pattern of issues the NDP has been calling attention to as of late.  

“It’s only when we see this government sort of called out for this kind of thing that we see any words of contrition,” Conway commented and then referred to the situation in the Legislative Assembly Monday when Finance Minister Donna Harpauer was asked to withdraw a text message sent to speaker Kevin Weekes. "It wasn’t until he called them out that there were any words of apology or contrition or back walking, and it speaks to a government that maybe doesn’t think the rules apply to them.”